A Human Circumference
French existentialist Jean Paul Sartre closes his play Huis Clos (“No Exit”) with the pronouncement, “Hell is other people.” The play offers a sardonic vision of hell as the place in which one must spend eternity with individuals one would barely seek to spend five minutes with in real life. As one writer notes, “The most terrible, exasperating torment, in Sartre’s eyes, is the agony of soul caused by having to live forever alongside someone who drives you up the wall. Their annoying habits, their pettiness or cynicism or stupidity, their disposition and tastes that so frustratingly conflict with yours and require, if you are to live in communion with them, some sort of accommodation or concession of your own likes and desires—that, says Sartre, is Hell.”(1) Living in a world in which tolerance is the highest value, most readers find Sartre’s vision highly narcissistic or the logical conclusion of an exclusively individualistic, existentialist philosophy.
For many others, however, Sartre’s sentiments are not so easily dismissed. Living, working and interacting with other people can indeed create a hellish existence for many. And most of us, if we are honest, can quickly think of the names of several individuals whose personal habits or grating personalities makes relating to them very difficult at best. Sartre’s honesty, albeit through a cynical lens, also exposes a truth about the realities of human tolerance. On the one hand, we generally base our capacity for tolerance on loving those who are easy to love or who are broadly similar to our own way of living and viewing the world. On the other hand, we are easily tolerant of external causes, ideals, and principles, which are quickly lost when we come into contact with individuals who shatter that ideal image.
I was reminded of Sartre’s insight while serving at my church’s hospitality ministry dinner. Homelessness and hunger for the working poor is a perennial issue where I live. While homelessness remains an abstract idea, it is easy for me to ‘love’ the broad category of people who are poor or homeless. Yet, every month at my church dinner for the homeless—the full-range of humanity on display right in front of me-I often see the ways in which my ‘love’ is merely a form of patronage. Eating with individuals who have not showered in weeks (or months), who suffer from mental illness or chemical dependency tests my love of humanity in ways that the abstract category of homelessness never will. A preference for categories makes it very hard for me to love the real people seated all around me.
A contemporary of Sartre, C.S. Lewis wrote about this tendency to love causes and ideals more than real people in his novel The Screwtape Letters. He saw this hellish tendency as a carefully constructed diabolical strategy. The demon, Wormwood, was advised to “aggravate that most useful human characteristic, the horror and neglect of the obvious.”(2) The obvious, Lewis notes through his character Screwtape, is the human capacity for both benevolence and malice. Their misdirection and exploitation is not as obvious to us. Diabolical Uncle Screwtape explains to his nephew Wormwood:
“The great thing is to direct the malice to his immediate neighbors whom he meets every day and to thrust his benevolence out to the remote circumference, to people he does not know. The malice thus becomes wholly real and the benevolence largely imaginary…but you must keep on shoving all the virtues outward till they are finally located in the circle of fantasy.”(3)
If benevolence, tolerance, or love are simply attached to remote ideals involving people we never have any direct contact with in the day-to-day, how can that really be benevolence? In the same way, how can we say we love our neighbor when our malice towards particular habits or personality quirks is on full display? How quickly we lose our temper with family members; how easily we show offense at those who do not see it our way; how readily we devise strategies to withhold love, or to punish our ever-present offenders?
Lewis highlights a predominant theme in the teaching of Jesus. Throughout the gospels, Jesus corrects the prevailing notion that the neighbor is one just like me, who agrees with me, and sees the world as I see it. The “neighbor” is other people—not an abstraction, but a living, breathing person with habits, views, and quirks that will not only get on our nerves, but also tempt us toward contempt. And love is only a real virtue when it is lived out among real, human relationships. As Lewis’s character Screwtape notes wryly:
“All sorts of virtues painted in the fantasy or approved by the intellect or even, in some measure, loved and admired, will not keep a man from [Satan’s] house: indeed they may make him more amusing when he gets there.”(4)
Sartre was honest in revealing the often hellish reality of living with other people. We would much rather love an ideal, a concept (the homeless, or starving children across the world) than the people right in front of us, in our lives right now. In the life of Jesus, we see a man who loved those individuals directly in front of him; he gathered around him a group of disparate people from tax-collectors on the left, to zealot revolutionaries on the right. He delayed arrival at a temple official’s home because an unknown woman touched the hem of his garment. He delivered a man so out of his mind that he had been driven from his community to live in desolate caves. In front of the most important religious officials of his day, he allowed a woman of questionable reputation to anoint his feet with perfume and use her tears and hair to wash them.
The love of Jesus is not a pie in the sky ideal for people he never knew; it was tangible, messy, and ultimately cost him his life. In Jesus, we see heaven on display in the hell of individual lives. If we seek to follow him, vague ideals about tolerance must give way to flesh and blood reality—loving the all-too-human in front of us.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) Lauren Enk, “Hell is Other People; Or is It?” Catholicexchange.com, August 12, 2012, accessed July 10, 2013.
(2) C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Rev. ed., (New York: Collier Books, 1982), 16.
(3) Ibid., The Screwtape Letters, 30.
(4) Ibid., 31.
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